James Santos Runs Away With the Cirque

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This month, my friend and Dance Project Artistic Director James Santos will move away from Redding for the second time in his life. He’s taking a position as artistic assistant with the world-renowned entertainment company, Cirque du Soleil. I talked to James about his new adventure, the current North State “state of the arts,” and what his kids think about their globe-trotting Dad.

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So, James, what made you decide to join Cirque du Soleil?

I have always respected the size of their productions, company and mission. With almost 5,000 employees and 22 shows around the world, they are one of the largest entertainment companies in the world. The side most of us do not know is the heart of their company. They nurture their employees, encourage you to grow and are truly interested in you as a person. My interviews with Cirque started in April. During this process, I learned that the people were all so kind, really wanted to see if I fit into their organization and then took the time to see where I would fit best. Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil’s founder, started the “One Drop,” which fights poverty by providing access to water and sanitation in developing countries.

Tell us a bit about your new job.

I will be the Artistic Assistant on the show “Dralion,” Cirque du Soleil’s 12th touring show. I start rehearsals on October 13 in Charlotte, NC. The show opens in Trenton, NJ on October 20.

My job is to assist the artistic team and artistic activity and help ensure that the show meets and maintains the high standards established at its creation with regard to artistic and acrobatic performance, staging, choreography, musical score, costumes, lighting, sound, and make-up. I’ll provide feedback, take notes and check in with coaches, integrate new performers or acts into the shows and prepare artists for media events. There is so much it boggles my mind.

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It sounds like an amazing adventure, but who is at the helm of The Dance Project once you leave?

Our company has been preparing for this all summer. We split my numerous jobs up among people that have been around the longest and would suit them best. Most of the artistic elements for the new Cascade Christmas were decided a month ago. I am hammering out the new choreography and direction like a waterfall the past two weeks, trying to finish as much as possible before I leave.

The artistic team is: Artistic Coordinators Marissa Kinneavy and Tiffany Rodrigues, who will finish any re-staging from last year’s show and also conduct regular rehearsals of the company production, Cindy Sumsion, the show quality manager and costume designer, and Jana Leard, the new Dance Project general manager.

In addition, there are a few in the show who have been around for years and understand my original vision. I know I can trust this group, but it is no easy job. I will pray for them. When things get crazy I will be in touch with them through Skype and email. I’ll return the week of opening to help with the final touches.

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Your own dance company was a natural evolution, but a Christmas show? How did A Cascade Christmas come to be?

In 1999 I performed within the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes and had the best time. I worked the hardest I have ever worked, but really enjoyed the Christmas environment. I thought someday I would love to do something like this and create it myself.

In 2004, I was back in Redding. The Cascade Theatre opened and we entertained at a number of fundraisers and then the pre-show for the Cascade’s grand opening. It was twenty minutes long. We had no backdrops and costumes from our closets. A $365 donation got the girls their Santa suits and everything else was donated. People loved it, so, I started brainstorming. It has grown bigger and bigger every year and we are forced to get more organized and creative every year.

You’ve flexed your artistic muscles the last few years with spring shows. How did that feel?

The spring show has always been a challenge. Most dance companies rely on their holiday show to support them through the year, but we have not always had that luxury. A spring show was really an opportunity for the dancers to show their off their other talents, a way to keep people around more of the year and do something besides the holiday cheese that I love so much.

My plan was to grow that show into a spring-version revue like the Christmas show, and I thought people would come to both. Not the case. So, I tried a few musicals. One of them was “Once on this Island.” No one knew the name, so no one came. “Swing” was well attended but cost an arm and a leg for musicians and licensing. Most of the performers were left with nothing in return and I feel that artists should be compensated for their efforts.

I tried once again with a spring revue, “Exposed – A Celebration of Dance.” Apparently people thought we were going to be naked. That year, 2008, we almost closed our company down. It was actually a great experience for us. We had to learn what the company meant to all of us and most importantly, how to ask for money. At this year’s spring show, “Steppin Out,” attendance was up. Next year we will perform “Sound of Music.” I helped cast it and it is going to be a great show.

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You were home-grown, right here in Redding. So, what stole James Santos from Redding the first time?

My dream and my passion for musical theatre and dance. I had to pursure my dreams of singing and dancing in New York and all over the country. I was encouraged by many people here in Redding to go forward. I never wanted to look back and say I did not try.

And what brought you back?

My intuition? A message from God? I am not sure, but once my heart heard the message I felt as if a bomb had been dropped right in front of me. It was loud! We were living in New York. Brian (partner, Brian Catanio) had a great job and I had a contract at The Met Opera, but I just knew it was right. Our stuff was in a moving truck and we were flying home within three weeks of that decision.

What was it about the artistic climate that made you feel a dance company would work?

Artistic climate? That’s funny. Redding, to many of us who grew up here, has always been quite cool, but that’s changed. It’s just slower than other areas. I never thought a dance company would work and I still would not classify The Dance Project as a typical dance company. We are more of an entertainment company. I don’t think a dance company would survive here, if it is only giving the community “dance.”

The Dance Project has almost 10,000 people a year come to our Christmas show, but the spring show attendance drops to under 4,000 people. To me, this is an indication that there is not enough interest in what a ballet company or contemporary company’s repertoire would include.

Most of the time dance company shows are bare bones, so if someone thinks they are going to survive as a professional company, be able to pay their members and put on shows where the community will be supportive, I would suggest an area other than Redding.

What do you think needs to happen for the North State to maximize its creative potential?

It would be nice if some of our professional businesses or fundraising folks were more involved in artistic organizations. The arts groups do not need more artists. There is already a strong group of artists involved with the arts. Also, the general public needs to understand that we must pay our local artists and get into the frame of mind that things can change and be bigger if you believe in them.

Two years ago, I could barely see straight. Money was tight at home and I was asking for money for the dance company. I wasn’t making any money for all of the work I did. It just felt so strange. At that time, it was hard for me to believe in what I was doing. I was more concerned about letting down our community and the company members than about paying my bills. I had to find a new focus.

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What do Brian and the kids think of your new adventure?

Brian and I are best friends and over the past 11 years have learned so much about having a positive relationship, and allowing each other to grow and change. We support one another in all that we do and are teaching the kids the same thing. This move is one that will benefit our entire family. Yes, the short term reality is that I will be on the road 10 weeks at a time, but they will be coming out on the road for a few weeks at a time. Someday, we may make the decision to all go on the road. Crazy, right?

We were able to spend the summer in Florida for two months this year and it was just our little family being weird and crazy together. I loved it. I learned that I always want my kids to know that we are here for them, that they have us to come to for questions about life and also that they can depend on us to show them the world, share new cultures, colors and experiences.

If I begged and pleaded and promised you anything, what would make you stay?

If Cirque was opening a resident show in Redding.

What will you miss most?

So many things. The immediate loss will be my family, not waking up with the kids every day, not being there for Brian when he needs to escape, as we both do now sometimes. I will miss my friends, and of course, all the exciting traditions we have created around the Cascade Christmas show. It will be strange not to be here through the entire process. Maybe I will come back with some fresh eyes and enjoy it like other people are able to.

Redding is one of the most beautiful places around and it will always feel like home to me no matter where my travels lead me.

Click HERE to learn more about James’ new Cirque du Soleil adventure, “Dralion.”


Adam Mankoski is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your NorthState weekend events to adamm.anewscafe@gmail.com.

This portrait of Adam Mankoski was created by Shasta High School students Chance Norman and Kenzi Bell.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment.

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is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner are the owners of HawkMan Studios and the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday Art Hop.
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13 Responses

  1. Avatar Erin Friedman says:

    I am so grateful to James for all he has done for the arts here in the North state — and for my son, the dancer — the folks at Cirque must be thrilled to pieces to be getting such a talented, energetic, creative artist for their team. Our family's best wishes for continued success will follow him on the road.

  2. Avatar Tammy Love says:

    You will be missed!

  3. Doni Greenberg Doni Greenberg says:

    (Adam, great interview. Thank you! I could totally hear James talking. "Crazy, right?"

    James, my selfish reaction is to throw myself at your feet, grab your leg and beg you to stay, in the "Please don't go, we love you so" mindset. But It's time for you to take flight to your next adventure. I'm not surprised you've been hired for this job. I'm only surprised you haven't been whisked away by other companies sooner.

    Please do not feel one iota of guilt about leaving. You've already done more for Redding and the North State cultural climate than the average 100 people do in a lifetime. Thank you for giving to our community. Thank you for bringing the joy of dance to thousands of people. Thank you for giving creative kids and adults a place to learn and perform and realize their dreams.

    You are a live wire, a free spirit, a cheerleader, a change-maker, a true leader and fantasy-creator – an Energizer Bunny in tap shoes. You were a Redding boy who grew into a man and made this town a better place.

    YES, I will miss you. But Brian and the kids will be here, and maybe we'll see each other during one of those 10-week home visits.

    I am so happy for this opportunity for you. Enjoy it, and know you have a community who loves and supports you, and cheers you on … and looks forward to hugging you when you return home.

    xod 🙂

  4. Avatar Adam Mankoski says:

    James – Ditto what Doni said. It has been so nice for Troy and I to have you to bounce ideas, collaborate on projects and share frustrations and celebrations. We'll miss your energy and creativity. Have an amazing time!!

    Adam

  5. Avatar Kelsey Rondeau says:

    I was reading this today and it made me feel incredibly nostalgic for the shows that the Dance Project puts on every year. Were it not for James, in all probability, I would not be pursuing a degree in Theater, and most certainly I would never have stayed with Dance. It was his shows that made me want to be a dancer in the first place. It is my passion, my love, and I want to thank him very much for all the teaching he gave me through the years. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to say that James taught me and directed me these past few years. I wish him and Brian luck in the future, because I know they will both do great things. Also, if Dralion happens to come anywhere near Austin, TX, I'm totally there! I wish you luck!
    Kelsey

  6. Avatar Grammalyn says:

    This is so bittersweet for me as a board member of The Dance Project, and as James' friend. It was in my living room in 2008 that we as a Dance Project family decided that we COULD make this work, despite dismal finances. To see where James is headed now is an affirmation to me that we must continue to believe in our dreams, and in the power that we have as individuals and as team members. Everyone talks of James as an artist and creative genius. What I will miss most is his kind spirit, and the loving way that he guides his performers to be the very best that they can be. He is truly a wonderful person, and I'm thrilled for his continued success. Sniff.

  7. Avatar Trish Harris-Spinner says:

    We will all miss James so very much in our little arts community / family. He is a true leader and inspiration to so many people in this town. Like our own Mary Poppins… Only able to stay with us "until the wind changes…" Redding has been so blessed by James' talent and efforts. (My secret wish is that he will go get some more knowledge, inspiration and experience, and someday BRING IT HOME! 🙂 But, while he is blessing the rest of the world with his gifts, we'll send our love and deep respect from our hearts to take where ever the wind will carry him. Love you James!

  8. Avatar Connie Blanc says:

    I moved here from San Francisco in 1999 and felt a real void without the "arts"…I stumbled onto "A Cascade Christmas" show when my daughter was 5 years old…I was so taken a back……"Who is this? What is this and how in the world do I get involved in this?"…So, I became a Board Member!!!

    My daughter (now 10) has had the opportunity to work under James in 6 different shows and I thank God that she has had this opportunity ….not just because of his talent (although that certainly has helped)…but because my daughter has a true love and respect for the arts, dance & the theatre that we truly have James to thank….I speak for so many people, I know.

    People come into our lives for a reason, a season and a lifetime….& I believe that James has been all of these to us! "If you love & care about someone enough, you must let them go…" So, we must let you go…..but it doesn't mean that we really want to…You will make us all very proud!!!!!

  9. Avatar Kerri says:

    Doni said exactly what I was going to say – I could hear James saying, "Crazy, right?" I know there's no way for James to fully understand the magnitude of his influence. He has made young artists more driven, art-appreciating people who know better than to settle for "almost perfect." These people are going to be college students, career people, parents and grandparents some day, and we're all lucky that his thumbprint has been on their lives. We love you, James and Brian, and your beautiful babies, and we will miss you so much! Nothing but good things coming your way.

  10. Avatar sandi says:

    OMG! Great news for you..sad for us. You have so enriched our community with all that you are and all that you do. Doni said it best, no surprise; she is the writer. Thank you for sharing your life and talents with us. We are better people for having you in our community.
    Much success and happiness to you and your family. I, too, look forward to seeing you around town when you visit. Please keep us in your "loop".

    Hugs,
    Sandi

  11. Avatar Adrienne jacoby says:

    I sit here reading the interview and then the comments afterward and tears are running off my chin. . . you are deeply loved, m' dear. You have profoundly enriched and touched so many lives. Everything that everyone said above is absolutely true. i DON'T WANT YOU TO GO!! But then, we all know that to deny the artistic opportunity is to destroy the artistic expression. So, go with our blessings. Learn and grow as if your feet were in Miracle-gro .. . and maybe, just maybe, if we are very good children and whine loudly enough, God will bring you back to us to inspire and bless a whole new generation of Redding-ites.

    Love to you and to your family . ..

  12. Avatar Lori Cahill says:

    We have James to thank for raising the bar for performing arts here in Redding. When I saw the first Cascade Christmas show, I knew Redding had something special. He is an artistic genius and a master at his craft. I'm sure he will continue to "wow" his audiences all over the world. God Bless you and your family!

  13. Avatar Karine Larocque says:

    Hi James!
    CONGRATS on finally making it through the intensive interview process at Cirque, and following your dreams! Have a fabulous time on Dralion 🙂
    Karine